Caucasian Wanderings

In between working at the hostel, tapping away at the keyboard turning my walking journals and memories in to the beginnings of a book, and exploring Tbilisi, I took some short trips to see more of Georgia and neighbouring Armenia. Transport is pretty well organized, cheap and relatively easy to use, despite the slightly chaotic bus stations. The landscape outside of the capital is diverse and beautiful even if you are only glimpsing it through a rattling marshrutka window: From snow-capped peaks and frozen mountain passes, to lush green pastureland, neat rows of vineyards stretching away into the distance and weather worn rock formations glowing warm in the evening sun. The beauty of Georgia’s countryside never failed to impress me on my mini adventures.

Gori & Uplistsikhe Cave settlement

On a freezing cold December morning I made the 45 minute marshrutka ride from Tbilisi’s Didube bus station to the city of Gori. It still bears the scars of the war with Russia at the hands of Vladimir Putin, in 2008, not only in terms of artillery scars, but also the IDP (internally displaced people) settlements visible from the main road as you approach. Best known as the birthplace of another notorious Russian leader – Josef Stalin, Gori now hosts a museum about him, next to what is claimed to be the humble town house in which he was born, and his bullet proof train carriage WWII.
Deciding to save my Stalin biography lesson until the afternoon, as soon as I got off the marshrutka from Tbilisi I sought out a village bus which stopped near the Uplistsikhe caves about 10km out of Gori. The battered old bus bounced and lurched its way out of town with passengers getting up and helping the doors closed again after each stop. A young lady got up for her stop and indicated that this was where I should also get off. A 30-minute walk up to the bridge and back along the Mtkvari river bank bought me to the entrance of the Uplistsikhe complex. An icy wind danced around the fascinating collections of halls, wine cellars, temples and living quarters carved out of the rocky hillside and I spent a good couple of hours scrambling around the hollows and tiny steps worn in to the ground between them.
I tracked down the bus back to Gori – i.e. stood with the group of people huddling against the cold on the side of the road, where there was no English information in the Stalin museum but I pieced together the story from the photographs, maps and an eclectic collection of personal items and gifts on display. Outside, someone had taken aim at the Stalin statue with amusing accuracy and a big white lump of snow covered one of his eyes making him look like he was wearing an over-sized white eye patch. It reminded me of a statue of Lenin that I had seen in a small town in Tajikistan 3 years before. That towering figure was entirely white but had been secured to the plinth it stood on by bands of black wire across the feet – which looked like rudimentary flip-flops. I wonder if this is a running theme for monuments of ex-Soviet leaders!

Signagi

In late January my father decided to brave the Georgian winter and come to visit me, so I took us to Sam Gori bus station to catch the marshrutka to Signagi. Maybe everyone else had checked the weather – a fluffy white layer of fresh snow soon became visible as we got out of the city and beautiful as the resulting winter wonderland was, it meant the journey took nearer to three hours than the normal two. Defying gravity and the laws of physics the battered marshrutka managed to plough its way through the foot-deep snow covering the road as we approached the hilltop town which is famed for its local wine and the picturesque streets and views out over the vine yards and across to Azerbaijan.

Unfortunately, by the time we arrived it was too dark to see much but by a stroke of good fortune a lift was waiting at the bus stop to deliver us to the wine. As it got later and later and snowier and snowier during the bus ride I had mentioned that maybe we should get a taxi to the guest house so that we didn’t miss the home cooked dinner (which had come highly recommended and was one of my main reasons for dragging us out in to this snow storm). Despite my failure to mention the name of the guest house I had in mind, a woman on the bus had overheard and phoned her brother, a guesthouse owner, to tell him two tourists were heading for Sighnaghi and he came to meet the bus. I was happily surprised when he introduced himself as Giorgi from Zandarashvili’s guesthouse – exactly the one I had in mind.

Within 30 minutes we were sat by the log fire in the living room as the table was being filled up with plates of traditional Georgian fare, accompanied by red and white wine, also produced by the family. I think it’s fair to say my father was a little blown away by the serendipity of our arrival, the spread of food before us and the fact that Giorgi sat down to drink with us. I tried to warn him about the cha cha which was soon bought out, but as Giorgi got into the swing of toasting it was too late. 12 hours later I woke to the familiar feeling of a heavy cha cha induced hangover and by the time we had dragged ourselves back to life there was only time for a lazy breakfast before we said a warm farewell to Giorgi and the Zandarashvili family. More snow was forecast and were warned it would be best to take the bus back to Tbilisi whilst we still could. With the inclement weather and the lack of visitors almost everything was shut in the town and the views, which I had enjoyed on my previous visit three years ago, were totally obscured by a wintry mist and snow clouds. Still – I think I had got my point across to Dad about Georgian food, drink and hospitality.

Bakuriani

The snow may have hampered our overnight trip to Signagi, but it was exactly what we were hoping for as we headed to the ski resort of Bakuriani. Another three hour marshrutka ride, this time from Tbilisi’s Didube station, turned into a chilly four-hour affair as the screaming engine struggled up the final section to the mountain. The cold was bitter and measured a bone chilling -17° as we stepped out into the evening darkness and headed to our guesthouse, and the next day we put on every layer possible before heading to the slopes.

I instantly fell in love with snowboarding all over again on the perfect snow and empty pistes looking out over magical snowscapes of frozen villages and woodlands, although I think it took Dad a little longer to find his ski legs! Horses, sleds and old Soviet taxis ferried people back and forth between the lift stations and the disco lights of the night skiing session were somewhat surreal but allowed me to ride until late into the evening with the piste just about visible.

As I strapped in for my last run of the night I watched a family getting out of the lift. There were three adults and one child (maybe 4 or 5 years old) but only three snow boards. To my surprise as everyone readied themselves the child was scooped up by one of the adults and simply cradled in his arms as they rode off. I am no slouch on a snowboard and as we were all hurtling down the hill I could hear the kid’s excited shouts, so he was obviously enjoying it, but it seemed risky to say the least, in the dim light of the night skiing and the speeds we were riding at.

Heading back down the mountain the following morning we opted for the tourist train, which takes 4 times as long as the marshrutka but weaves its way through the pine forests and sleepy mountain settlements between Bakuriani and Borjomi. The two carriages were heated until almost boiling point and there seemed to be more railway workers than tourists on board. In between animated games of cards and jumping out to clear some snow from the tracks the men slept and picnicked most of the way down. After waiting at a halfway stop for the train coming up the valley to pass, the train manager (or just the guy with the biggest fur hat) insisted on sharing his bread, cheese and pickled cabbage with us whilst we did our best to chat in my broken Russian and Georgian.

David Gareja

In March the sun finally came out and we decided to take a road trip to the monastery of David Gareja about 70km away from Tbilisi and close to the Azerbaijan border. There are 2 possible routes from the city which our friend and driver, Alex described as; the good one, and the bad but interesting one. Of course, we opted for the interesting one, which took us out of Tbilisi to the city of Rustavi, then with little warning turned a sharp right into an industrial wasteland of disintegrating factories and a rundown jail before leading us along ever deteriorating roads into the empty countryside. Dilapidated factory buildings, barb-wired prison walls and tumbledown housing blocks gave way to rolling hills and endless grassland with patchy clouds casting dancing shadows over the mesmerizing barren landscape.

We turned down a dusty side track to a hilltop monastery which turned out to be strictly men only, so we stopped a respectful distance and ate a picnic below it. Back on route (although there was no sign post, road markings or even actual road by now – just a dirt track winding its way across the beautiful emptiness) we bumped and bounced along bathed in the warm sunshine of early spring. The David Gareja monastery complex itself is nestled in the side of a rock face on the cusp of a valley, peering out to the Azerbaijani border. Once inside the outer walls the monastery was tranquil and still, with a series of narrow steps leading up to small dwellings cut into the rocks.

Behind it a steep path leads up a sizeable hill and views from the top looked out to tiny dots of sheep and cattle herds in the seemingly endless distance. After a couple of hours exploring the silent settlement and toiling our way up the hill to savour the scenic panoramas, we headed to the nearest town of Udabno and picked up the ‘good’ road back to Tbilisi. The recent spring rains had set the grasses and flowers alive and their colours danced radiantly as we sped past them in the car. As the rolling hills and farmland began to be eaten up by towns and villages on the outskirts of Tbilisi the sky became emblazoned in reds, oranges and pinks as the last of the day’s sun sank below the horizon.

Yerevan, Garni & Geghard (Armenia)

With the Armenian border just 75 km from Tbilisi I was keen to visit the country whilst I had the chance, sadly I only ended up having 2 days to hop over the border, but arriving in Yerevan at 6:30am on the overnight train from Tbilisi, gave us an early start on our first day. The bonus of this was seeing the vast Soviet-style streets and squares eerily empty as we wandered around the city looking for somewhere open to sell us coffee (for anyone in the same position head to the nearest Kara joint – open 24 hours, unlike anything else in the city it would seem!).

With our caffeine fix on board we took a trolley bus and then a city bus out to the Gai bus station – actually a car park next to a large Mercedes dealership – to catch another bus out to the village of Garni. Although home to a UNESCO listed site with a temple and other buildings dating back to the first century AD, we continued up the valley on foot to the Geghard monastery. Following a similar theme to my other excursions in the Caucus’s this was a centuries old religious site nestled into and dug out of a remote rock face.

We followed the road to the site for around an hour, being treated to some delicious apples by a villager as we passed his gate and marvelling at the views behind us. Like the other monasteries the site was beautiful and tranquil, but maybe more enjoyable was being out in the country and spending a couple of hours just walking in the natural surroundings of a new country and catching glimpses of Mount Ararat across the nearby Turkish border. Back in Yerevan that night we had something of a Pomegranate Hostel reunion as a few guests who had stayed with is in Tbilisi had travelled on to Yerevan and were all coincidentally in town on the same night.

The following morning was spent exploring a bit of the city and stocking up on Armenian cognac (which is highly recommended if you ever get the chance) before making our way to the Kilikia bus station. Despite our best efforts at researching transport back to Tbilisi, we could not find any information for anything departing after 1:30pm (and for various reasons we wanted to be back in Georgia that night). Everything was cleared up instantly at the bus station when we saw a minivan sporting a sign for Tbilisi, inquired when it left, and were told they went daily at 9:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:00 and 17:00. We bought our tickets for the last service of the day (but you can also book them over the phone by calling Miko on +374 96 92 92 81) and left our bags at the bus station office to visit some more of the city in the extra 4 hours we had just been given in Yerevan. By 10:30pm that night we were being dropped off by the Avlabari metro station in Tbilisi, where a regular service of minivans and cars operates to and from Yerevan (offering a convenient and little known alternative to the night train and marshrutka from elsewhere in Tbilisi).

Kazbegi (Stepantsminda)

My final adventure from my winter base in Tbilisi was a day trip to Kazbegi. Having seen countless photos of this iconic mountain and the hilltop church perched on a ledge between the mountain and town of the same name, it felt somewhat like a pilgrimage. Returning to Didube bus station once more around 8:45am I took my seat on a marshrutka scheduled to leave at 9am. There was a slight delay as the Russian speaking guy devouring an early morning khachapuri and can of beer insisted on one last cigarette, before we set off for the small town on the cusp of the Georgian/Russian border, confusingly referred to as both Kazbegi and Stepantsminda. The night before (St Patrick’s Day) caught up with me somewhat and sadly I slept through much of the journey into the mountains and awoke just after the Jvari Pass at 2395m to a winter wonderland once again. The mountainsides were covered in a thick blanket of glistening snow and as we got nearer the border we passed a long line of trucks clearly for the weather ahead to clear so they could cross into Russia.

Once in Kazbegi itself the sun was shining and the walk up the track highlighted how little exercise I had done over the winter. Snow filled one side of the troughs carved out by the 4×4 taxis which periodically skidded and wheel spun their way past, whilst spring snow-melt gurgled its way down the adjacent ditch. Towards the top there was a steep scramble through knee deep powder in the trees, before I was confronted by a wall of white. Just as I was suspecting I may have taken a wrong turn, a set of hazy silhouettes appeared in the fine mist of snow dust being hurled over the wall by the wind and pointed me in the direction they had just come. Clambering over the white ledge I was blasted by an icy gust as I emerged onto the snow streaked plateau. Through the stinging cold of the howling wind I was halted by the stunning view before me. Having seen so many pictures of Gergeti Trinity church perched on the pinnacle in the distance, I was surprised at my amazement. But it was truly beautiful and a worthy pilgrimage to make on my penultimate day in Georgia.

Feasting

No amount of time in Georgia can be passed without stuffing yourself silly with all the delicious food on offer. Whether it’s the ubiquitous takeaway treats like khachapuri (cheesy bread to die for), lobiani (red bean pastry), spit-grilled shwarma (the Persian answer to a kebab) or the endless platefuls meat, aubergine, walnut and pickled dishes at a family feast, you always find yourself coming back for more.

One of my first stops when I arrived in Tbilisi was a little underground spot in the back streets of Liberty Square which I remembered (hazily) from three years previous. It didn’t take long to retrace my steps to Racha House, and as I ducked through the low door and down the steps onto the shabby carpet beneath the vaulted red brick ceiling, I was instantly transported back. The open kitchen offers a steamy view of what’s to come as endless platefuls of khinkhali (steamed dumplings) are hoisted up from the boiling pans and loaded onto plates for the seven or eight tables. Lobio (bean stew) bubbles away in clay pots in the oven, wild boar shashlik sizzles on the grill and a chiller counter tempts you with badridzhani nigvsit (aubergine and walnut rolls), pkhali (spinach, walnut and coriander dip), salads and pickles. It was as good as I remembered and this was not my only visit to Racha House during my stay.

I also got to experience more traditional aspects of Georgian culture and was lucky enough to be invited to join a local family for Christmas day supra – a Georgian dining experience like no other. I had become familiar with the tradition of feasting and toasting during meals from my visits to local restaurants, but at a full-on supra it is on another level. Soon after I arrived and met members of the family and close friends, the table started to fill up with plates of food. When we sat down it was already full to bursting with all of my Georgian favourites plus other dishes I was encountering for the first time. There was grouse, wild hare, chicken liver, suckling pig, ostri (beef stew), duck, lobio, sauces, pickled tomatoes, cabbage and other vegetables, fried potatoes, khachapuri and much more. Plates were balanced on more plates and it was all accompanied by a constant flow of homemade wine and pear lemonade.

No sooner had the feasting started, the toasting got underway too. The tamada is the specially selected toastmaster invited to carry out this important role. As always, he started with the traditional toasts to the Georgian nation, patriarch, absent friends, men and women, before moving on to individuals around the table. From the moment you sit down at the table your wine glass is never allowed to fall empty and the huge jugs of homemade wine were endlessly refilled. As the supra continues the tamada invites each person to add their own thanks and personal toast and although I understood very little (other than ‘cheers’) as it was all in Georgian, a couple of members of the family spoke enough English tried to keep me in the loop and translated for me when it came to my turn to make and return a toast. I could barely move after more than 3 hours of eating, drinking and toasting, but somehow there was still time and energy for some Georgian songs and a few staggered dances to Beatles and Queen classics as people started to disperse.

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